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Alison Hardie - An affair with the Oriental Garden, 2000-12-06

Ms Alison Hardie became interested in this rather specialised subject when she found herself asked to translate an ancient tome on Ming Gardens into English. She became aware of how gardens played an important role in Ming society, which she described as easily the most interesting dynasty! With the rise of the merchant classes more people could afford to build themselves a little 'microcosm of the universe', in which to hold social gatherings, put on plays, paint and indulge in that most beloved activity - deep thinking.

Suzhou is famed as China's 'Garden City', and the talk was accompanied by beautiful slides from there. Alison explained that no genuine Ming gardens remain, but there have been several restorations of varying authenticity. It was in the late Ming that gardens primarily became aesthetic as opposed to functional. They were designed to give a large scale feel to small areas. Rocks and pools become mountains and rivers. One Chinese metaphor for a beautiful landscape is 'You shan you shui', meaning 'there is water and there are mountains'. One eccentric literati had named the rockpool in his back yard 'the celestial pool', and spent hours by the side of it, seeking inspiration.

The plants chosen also have special significance. Bamboo symbolises the qualities of a gentleman, its ability to bend in the wind rather than breaking shows admirable qualities of resistance. Lotus flowers are popular in pools, not only for their associations with Buddhism, but also in the way that something so pure and beautiful can rise from the mud.

Upon closer observation, clever use of gateways and partitions create visual puns. Stone bamboo juts out from a clump of the real thing, rocks backing onto a white stone wall look exactly like a traditional Chinese painting or a window in the wall turns the landscape into a landscape painting. Calligraphy is found on walls and stones: a way of demonstrating the literary prowess of the owner. You can lose yourself in intricate rockeries crafted by a Chinese equivalent of Capability Brown. One garden shown recreated the four seasons, with vibrant red trees for autumn and crazy paving on the floor of the winter garden to create the impression of ice. Ingeniously, a small window in the wall created a whistling breeze, so that even in the heat of summer, you could imagine yourself surrounded by winter.

Alison's talk made me aware of how much thought had been put into creating these gardens. They are art forms, closely linked to the painting and poetry that was created in them. There certainly is more to them than meets the eye!

summary by Kate Mulrenan